Since 1984, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC) has been serving Twin Cities Indigenous communities with programs that educate and empower women and their families, including social and mental health services rooted in traditional ways. Located in Minneapolis, MIWRC programs include sexual assault advocacy, street outreach, intimate partner violence prevention, and work with youth who are unsheltered or the victims of sex trafficking.
Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Marisa Cummings, named President and CEO of MIWRC in 2020. Cummings spoke about her work with tribal communities, coming into an awareness of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) crisis, and how talking openly and building community fosters healing.
I was Chief of Operations for my tribe. I am very connected to my tribal community and tribal communities in surrounding areas. I have worked with tribal, state, and federal jurisdiction issues and our tribal police departments. I have seen how our police departments employ abusers and may not help families in seeking justice for an abused family member. Sometimes, no one is tried for that death because the perpetrator is connected to one of the guys from the department.
That obstruction exists in our police departments. We do not want to talk about it because it makes our communities look dysfunctional — which they are because they are modeled after dysfunctional U.S. government systems. Colonization dismantled our systems that held people accountable and replaced them with this European feudal system.
Non-Native people exhibit predatory behavior. There is also internalized racism and oppression that Native people [inflict] upon each other in the form of homegrown trafficking and lethal domestic violence.
We have culturally grounded, amazing women who know who they are, have both traditional cultural and European models of education, and can provide the structure needed for change. They have not been listened to.
This idea that Native women are somehow less than human or less valuable makes the MMIR issue less important to society. Policies are good, but educating about the perception of Native women in society needs to happen. Telling stories first-hand is one way to do that.
When I was about ten, I heard a song about Indigenous activist Anna Mae Aquash, who was murdered and left to die of exposure in South Dakota during her work with the American Indian Movement. I listened to that song and thought about the women in our community. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, which is an urban center close to reservations. I remember thinking about a perception friends had — how non-Native people would say, “Indians are all drunks,” and the victim-blaming that went on. As I got older, we heard stories of women who were dating white guys and murdered. There was so much victim-blaming. I thought,‘This isn’t right. This isn’t okay. There is something wrong with this.’
Fast forward to Standing Rock and the level of interaction I was having with others who were like-minded. We talked about rematriation and the reclaiming of our Indigenous ways of being women and dismantling Western forms of patriarchy. Our connection to our Earth Mother is significant in fundamental cultural practices, cultural ways of thinking, cultural ways of being. She is being assaulted with resource extraction, which is how our women have been assaulted and forced to sell themselves for survival.
After Standing Rock, I had to think about what it is that I can do. I had to do a lot of healing to find my spiritual center. I met a lot of women who were also doing this work. We built a way of articulating what has happened to our communities and talked openly. I have never met a Native woman who has not been sexually assaulted at some point in her lifespan.
There is healing that has to occur — generational healing, and healing for us to bring life into the world. I did not know how to voice what happened to me as a young child, as a young woman. I have had health issues that are connected to that trauma. Now I have a way to heal that, through Western medicine and through ceremony. By giving voice to what has happened to you, you are encouraging other Native women to share what has happened to them — and hoping that through all of this, our next generation heals.
Part of our work at MIWRC, with those who have experienced sexual violence or gender-based violence, is showing women how to reconnect to creation. This could mean getting their hands in the earth and planting seeds. Understanding our women’s tradition of being the seed keepers and growing the foods that nourished and sustained our people is an important healing connection.
I am excited about expanding our work. I want MIWRC to offer a wrap-around, holistic healing approach for women when they are ready for that. We have sexual assault advocates; we have the Healing Journey, which is a peer-led, culture- based program for women who have experienced sexual violence. We have street outreach as well as a youth program.
In addition to that, we offer counseling and therapy. If women are interested in a ceremony to heal their physical being or their spiritual being, we can provide those ceremonies. We make sure our ceremonial practitioners have no history of [perpetrating] violence, that they receive their teachings in the appropriate ways.
One thing I have been trying to do is create a type of information system so that when someone goes missing there is a number to contact and we have a process in place for notification, for search parties. This is something I would like to connect with the MMIW Task Force about.
I grew up in a time when you did not want anyone to know your Indigenous identity because you could be harmed. Some people chose to pass or assimilate due to harm. Coming into this age now is powerful, when we are reclaiming our sense of identity in such a profound way — in the way that we dress, talk, build relationships with other Native women, and dismantle toxic behaviors. My father always told me that our women will lead into the future. We are seeing our women lead and heal our communities today, and we need our men to stand with us to do this important work.